Can VR technology improve science education?

Photo: Labster

Michael Bodekaer, co-founder and chief technical officer of the edtech startup Labster, explains how virtual reality technology is poised to revolutionize science education by increasing access to practical science.

Aisha Schnellmann: What are the major challenges schools are facing in teaching science?

Michael Bodekaer: There are a few main challenges, the first of which is to keep today’s students engaged as they are learning about science. Today’s students are so accustomed to high levels of interactivity and games that they easily become disengaged when teachers use traditional methods. And because of high costs and lack of resources, many schools are unable to provide their students with adequate access to science facilities such as laboratories. As a result, students may lack the opportunity in school to learn practical science, which is an essential part of science education.

At Labster, we wanted to create an engaging and interesting way for learners to interact with science, while also increasing their access to practical science education. To that end, we developed fully interactive virtual laboratories complete with gamification elements such as an immersive 3D universe, storytelling, and a scoring system.

With virtual laboratories, schools are able to drastically reduce the cost of practical science education, while simultaneously increasing access for learners. The virtual laboratory environment enables students to engage in inquiry-based learning, solving relevant real-world challenges while gaining practical laboratory experience.

It is important to note, however, that simulations can never replace physical laboratories, but are instead intended to supplement them. Practice in the virtual laboratory makes students entering the physical laboratory feel more confident and better prepared.

“With virtual laboratories, schools are able to drastically reduce the cost of practical science education, while simultaneously increasing access for learners.”

AS: How does the virtual lab work?

MB: There are two ways to access our virtual laboratories, each offering a different degree of immersion. One is to use a desktop computer (low immersion), while the other is to use virtual reality headsets (high immersion). We have found that the high immersion experience provided by virtual reality headsets increases engagement and the rate of knowledge transfer from the virtual to the real-world laboratory.

In a study participated by Labster, a group of students who used virtual reality headsets were compared with another group who accessed the simulations on a desktop computer. In a follow-up multiple choice quiz, both groups performed similarly. But when the same groups of students were in the physical laboratory two weeks later and were asked to conduct experiments, the students who had used the virtual reality headsets performed significantly better.

It should also be noted that students actually learn faster through failure, according to studies of “productive failure” conducted by Prof. Manu Kapur, Chair of Learning Sciences and Higher Education at ETH Zurich, with which I have been closely involved. So another benefit of the virtual lab is that it allows us to create a unique learning experience in which students can learn by failing, in a safe environment.

Moreover, it makes it possible for students to learn from real-life scenarios that would be impossible to replicate in a physical laboratory because they are too dangerous or occur only rarely.

“Another benefit of the virtual lab is that it allows us to create a unique learning experience in which students can learn by failing, in a safe environment.”

AS: High-immersion virtual reality (VR) achieved through virtual reality headsets is known to make students more present and engaged in the learning experience. However, it can also lead to cognitive overstimulation and thus have a negative effect on learning. Is it difficult to find the right balance?

MB: About two years ago, we participated in a study to analyze the effect of high immersion VR on cognitive load. We found that many students felt dizzy when they used the virtual reality headsets, owing to cognitive load, and did not learn significantly better than students who did not use them. However, this is not the case today.

Since that study, the technology has improved. Newer virtual reality headsets have “positional tracking,” a hardware improvement that drastically reduces cognitive overload. As a result, students no longer feel dizzy while experiencing virtual simulations. We have also improved our user experience design to account for the increase in cognitive load that students experience in a virtual simulation.

These improvements have made a big difference, but it took us a difficult two years of iterations to get there. It was not an easy process because virtual reality is such a new field and a new way of learning. Further research is needed, but we believe that virtual reality has tremendous potential.

AS: How effective has Labster been at teaching science to young learners?

MB: We work a lot with high schools, where Labster’s virtual laboratories are used to supplement students’ physical laboratory experiences. In a study published this year, it was found that virtual learning simulations in high schools increased knowledge significantly, compared with traditional lessons. It also enhanced the students’ interest in STEM content and in pursuing a STEM-related career.

We are currently working with several educational publishers, such as Pearson in the United States and Springer Publishing in Europe, to produce virtual simulations that are closely aligned to the content of existing science textbooks.

In Denmark, we recently launched an initiative to bring virtual reality headsets into high schools. For many schools, virtual reality headsets are a costly investment. However, with the assistance of the Danish government, which is committed to increasing funding for learning technologies in high schools over the next few years, more students will benefit from learning with the help of our virtual simulations.

AS: How important is the role of teachers in integrating ed-tech into classroom learning?

MB: It is absolutely critical. If teachers are reluctant to use ed-tech or fail to recognize its value, it is not going to happen. We learned in the early days that if we did not engage or work closely with teachers, students were less likely to use virtual simulations in their learning. Students were motivated to do so only when their teachers clearly explained the benefits, how they could learn from virtual simulations, and how these simulations were related to their examinations.

In my experience, many teachers are still afraid of new technology because of the misconception that ed-tech is complicated. Unfortunately, they also often have too much on their plates to try out new technologies in the classroom. That is why we make it a point to sit down with teachers and walk them through the virtual simulations via Skype or demo sessions, showing them that the technology is actually very easy to use. In addition, we have found that it is helpful when teachers recommend us to other teachers, based on the positive outcomes they have achieved with their students.

AS: How accessible is VR science education to schools (and learners) today?

MB: A virtual reality headset for every student in a classroom that gives them access to a fully equipped virtual laboratory costs significantly less than equipping a real-world laboratory. It is important that we work to disprove the widespread misconception in the education industry that VR science education is expensive.

Michael Bodekaer
Born and raised in Copenhagen, Denmark, Michael Bodekaer is both an EdTech innovator and a multi-disciplinary academic, with a passion for bridging the gap between technology and the learning sciences.He holds a Master’s Degree in Finance and Strategic Management from Copenhagen Business School and Kellogg School of Management, and a Bachelor of Science in Finance and Economics. In addition to this, Michael is a self-taught computer scientist and software architect and has designed several large-scale enterprise software solutions within communications, gaming and education.

Michael is now pursuing a PhD within Learning Sciences at ETH to further develop his foundational knowledge to advance his evidence-based work as Founder and Chief Technology Officer for 

Labster is a company that develops fully interactive advanced lab simulations designed to stimulate students’ natural curiosity and highlight the connections between science and the real world. Founded in 2012 by Mads Bonde and Michael Bodekaer, the company has customers at over 150 institutions in 25 countries, including ETH in Zurich, MIT in the United States, and Imperial College in London. Labster has offices in Denmark, Switzerland, the United States, and Indonesia. In Switzerland, it is located in the EdTech Collider.

The Swiss EdTech Collider is Switzerland’s first collaborative space dedicated to ambitious entrepreneurs transforming education and learning through technology. It is co-founded by the Jacobs Foundation.

Located in the EPFL Innovation Park just a few steps away from EPFL’s Center for Digital Education, the EdTech Collider provides a modern coworking space to its members ranging from early-stage to established startups. Unlike a classical startup incubator or accelerator program, the EdTech Collider offers ongoing support and access to ed-tech experts, industry leaders, and investors.

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